Into Thin Air


Here are two questions without good answers: How can a man go on a casual hike in a national park on a warm, cloudless day, and never return? And when can you start mourning a friend who is presumed dead?

Three weeks ago, Joe Wood, a 34-year-old editor with the New Press and a former editor and writer at The Village Voice, went for a day hike in Mount Rainier National Park. He has not been seen since. His disappearance has left a large and diverse community of friends centered in New York’s literary and journalistic circles— not to mention a tight-knit family in the Bronx— suspended between grief and perplexity. As the political scientist Adolph Reed says, “I find myself both straining to accept that Joe is gone and feeling that to accept that is an act of betrayal— and still half expecting to get a call from Joe.”

Wood, who has been writing a book about the African American family, went to Seattle on July 7 to attend Unity ’99, the minority journalists’ convention. It was at the first such gathering, held in Atlanta in 1994, that Wood met Somini Sengupta, a reporter for The New York Times, with whom he lived for several years. But the two separated some six months ago, and had only a brief encounter after Unity ’99’s opening ceremonies. The next day, Wood drove alone to Mount Rainier, entering the park— a receipt would later show— at 12:29 p.m. He apparently told only a casual acquaintance of his hiking plans.

When Wood failed to appear again at the conference, friends were surprised though not alarmed. But when Wood did not return to New York on Sunday, July 11, Sengupta started burning up phone lines cross-country. By Tuesday,
July 13, she had filed a missing-person report. The next day, park officials found Wood’s rental car in a Mount Rainier parking lot.

Park rangers began a search for Wood. Then, on the morning of July 15, they got their best— and, it would turn out, their only— lead: a hiker named Bruce Gaumond recognized Wood in a local newspaper story and called the park.

Gaumond said he had met Wood on the Rampart Ridge trail at an altitude of about 4800 feet on July 8. Gaumond said Wood asked whether the snow-covered trail continued much further. Gaumond told him he’d gone up another five or 10 minutes, but turned around at a dicey-looking snow bridge. Then, said Gaumond, Wood, dressed in a light shirt, wearing binoculars and carrying a bird book in one hand, forged ahead. Gaumond came down. The mountain has yielded no other clues about Wood since.

Standing in the trail clearing where Wood was last seen, it’s easy to understand what might have drawn this avid bird-watcher to the mountain. It perplexes some of his friends that Wood, who had a heart condition but was otherwise in good shape, climbed so high. But the three-hour hike he took is lined with mountain cabbage and the white flowers of dwarf dogwood, and passes through dense forests of western hemlock and Douglas fir— though up where Gaumond met Wood, four- to six-foot-high compacted snow blankets the steep landscape, obscuring the trails.

Indeed, snow is at the center of the mystery. This winter, Mount Rainier was covered by the third-heaviest snowfall in its history. Then, as much as two feet of snow melted in the sunny days following Wood’s disappearance, washing away tracks. Friends who had gathered at the mountain quickly learned a vocabulary of snow-driven danger: melting snow bridges treacherously spanning streams, snow-sided tree wells forming around huge trunks. Still, the temperate weather gave hope.

The Park Service organized search teams of backcountry rangers, firefighters, and volunteers. Squads fanned out across the southwest face of the mountain, scrambling down ravines and walking creek beds. Dog teams covered the trails; helicopters zigzagged the mountainside.

But on Friday, July 16, rain fell, lowering the temperature and searchers’ morale, and making the search more dangerous. By Saturday, as Wood’s father, Joe Sr., his mother, Elizabeth, and his sister, Pamela, arrived at the mountain, leaders of the search team held out little hope that Wood had survived 10 days in the wilderness. Meanwhile, of course, the nation had become transfixed by John F. Kennedy Jr.’s disappearance. And while Wood’s friends lamented the relatively small resources committed to his rescue, calls did come into park offices from Washington governor Gary Locke as well as the White House press office. Rangers, citing improving weather, decided to extend the search one day.

They found no evidence of Wood. At an emotional meeting on Sunday night, July 18, rangers explained their decision to scale back their search. Wood, they said, had likely suffered a catastrophic accident. Had he been mobile, they would have found some trace of him. And had he survived a fall but been immobile, he would have been lying on the ground. Without sufficient clothing and food, hypothermia was inevitable.

The search team’s explanation prompted a mixed response. Wood’s father talked about “dealing with reality.” That day, Sengupta had hiked up to the spot where Wood was last seen, and buried an earring and a ring, so “Joe would not be alone.” Still, alternative theories lingered: what if Wood had been abducted? Could it have been murder?

Any struggle on the mountain, say the rangers, would have produced scents for the dogs to pick up. In the end, they say, the sheer danger of the mountain suggests the most plausible outcomes— two other men have been lost on Mount Rainier in the past two months alone. Park spokesperson Maria Gillett says that rangers will send a helicopter and dog teams back up the mountain when the snow melts, and Elizabeth Wood says, “We’re going to wait to see.”

For many, Wood’s vanishing prevents solace. His literary agent, Faith Childs, with help from several of Wood’s friends, hired a former NYPD detective to retrace Wood’s steps. “We wanted someone who knows the wicked ways of the world,” says Childs, because, she adds, “I can’t say uncle yet. I just can’t.”

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